Policy paper

2015 to 2020 government policy: Military Aid to the Civil Authorities for activities in the UK

Published 4 August 2016


The government has established plans to provide an effective response to all types of emergencies and major crises at national, regional and local level. This involves pre-planned and coordinated responses from the emergency services, civil authorities and where appropriate, the Ministry of Defence (MOD). If there is an emergency in the UK, local emergency services provide the first response; government departments or civil authorities may then request military assistance from MOD.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA 04) places no statutory responsibility on the MOD to plan and prepare for civil crises; the statutory responsibility rests with Category 1 and 2 responders. CCA 04 placed a legal requirement on these responders to think, plan, procure, exercise and generally become more self-reliant in responding to crises within their remit.

As a result, and following significant resilience challenges faced by the UK in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the civil response capability has developed significantly over the past few years. It now manages emergencies that previously required MOD assistance. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) has also been set up as part of the Cabinet Office, and has significantly improved central governments’ coordination of both resilience planning and actual crises.

MOD’s role

The support of the armed forces to civil authorities in the UK is officially termed Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA).

MOD’s role is concentrated on 2 main areas:

  1. Providing niche capabilities, which MOD needs for its own purposes and which would not be efficient for the rest of government to generate independently, for example Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD).

  2. Standing ready to support the civil authorities when their capacity is overwhelmed. The armed forces provide this support from spare capacity, so it is subject to the availability of resources, without affecting core MOD objectives. The MOD does not generate and maintain forces specifically for this task.

This is because:

  • the requirement is unpredictable in scale, duration and capability requirement
  • experience suggests that requirements can usually be met from spare capacity
  • it would involve using the MOD budget to pay for other government departments’ responsibilities, which would not normally happen

Military Aid to the Civil Authorities

MACA is included in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 and contributes towards Defence Task 1, ‘Defence, security and resilience of the homeland and overseas territories’.

MACA may include assistance provided by the armed forces to other government departments for urgent work of national importance, responding to emergencies or in maintaining supplies and essential services. Also, the armed forces may be asked to provide assistance to communities for special projects or events of significant value, or through the attachment of volunteers.

Military support may be provided to civil law enforcement agencies, such as the police or Border Force, in the maintenance of law, order and public safety using specialist capabilities or equipment beyond that of civil powers.

Training and logistic assistance may be provided to civil authorities, through the provision of the defence estate or facilities for either training or operational support to other agencies carrying out their duties. For example, allowing the police to use an army training centre to assemble and brief a large number of police officers, even though military personnel or equipment might not be involved.

MACA considerations

The provision of military assistance is governed by 4 principles. MACA may be authorised when:

  1. There is a definite need to act and the tasks the armed forces are being asked to perform are clear.

  2. other options, including mutual aid and commercial alternatives, have been discounted; and either

  3. the civil authority lacks the necessary capability to fulfill the task and it is unreasonable or prohibitively expensive to expect it to develop one; or

  4. the civil authority has all or some capability, but it may not be available immediately, or to the required scale, and the urgency of the task requires rapid external support from MOD.

Notwithstanding the above, under exceptional circumstances, agreed usually at ministerial level, it may be necessary to waive temporarily the above criteria. This may include major events of national and international importance, or for an event that is catastrophic in nature.

As there are no standing military forces for these tasks, military support is not guaranteed. When military support is provided the civil authorities normally have to pay for it, in line with HM Treasury rules.

The armed forces can be brought in to deal with a range of situations including, but not limited to:

  • natural disasters, helping people in severe weather situations, such as flooding, where there is a need to protect human life, property and alleviate distress
  • network failure or disruption; animal disease outbreaks or public health epidemics; and public service related industrial disputes that affect our safety or security, or disrupt transport or communications links
  • criminal or terrorist activity, providing specialist expertise in specific circumstances
  • after a terrorist attack where armed military personnel may be deployed to locations usually guarded by armed police officers, to enable those officers to undertake other duties
  • bomb disposal: known officially as ‘explosive ordnance disposal’; this can be related to terrorism, or involve unearthing a bomb from the Second World War
  • mountain rescue, involving the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service, to support the civil authorities by helping people in danger
  • UK waters: protecting our territorial waters, ports, ships and energy installations from terrorist attack, protecting fisheries, preventing drug or people smuggling
  • UK airspace: detecting and deterring aircraft approaching UK sovereign airspace and protecting UK and NATO monitored airspace

Recent examples of emergencies, crises and events that needed help from the armed forces include:

  • building flood defences, evacuating vulnerable people, providing helicopter support and clearing roads in Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire during the winter floods of 2015 to 2016
  • providing security for major events, including the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the 2014 Commonwealth Games
  • helping UK travellers stranded overseas by the Icelandic ash cloud in 2010


The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review: a secure and prosperous United Kingdom 2015 sets out how MOD will contribute effectively to the security and resilience of the UK and overseas territories.

The strategy for deploying the armed forces in the UK

At national level, the MOD Operations Directorate in London is responsible for co-coordinating military assistance. The Headquarters Standing Joint Commander (UK), based in Andover, facilitates detailed planning and support. Local coordination is carried out by the Joint Regional Liaison Officers supported by Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Regional Liaison Officers.

During a crisis, MOD’s Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations) and the Director General Security Policy give guidance to ministers and other government departments. In this way, MOD acts as both a military headquarters and a department of state.

The Secretary of State for Defence is the minister responsible for the MOD. He chairs the Defence Council, which authorises all Defence operations in the UK. Ministers and the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) are the MOD’s chief representatives within government for managing a crisis, with specialist expertise drawn from within the MOD if necessary.

For operations within the UK, CDS has appointed Commander Home Command as the Standing Joint Commander (UK) responsible for the planning and execution of civil contingency operations within the UK landmass and territorial waters. Military assistance is provided on the basis that the relevant civil authority retains responsibility for, and control over, the situation and/or emergency. Military personnel on UK operations remain under a military command structure.

Asking for help from the military

Military aid can be requested and may be approved subject to the MACA principles listed earlier in this document. Military resources cannot be guaranteed to be available on demand and are paid for by the civil authority or requesting government department, not the MOD, except in cases where there is an imminent danger to life. Overall responsibility for dealing with domestic crises lies with the relevant lead government department.

The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may also request MOD assistance through their territorial departments.

All requests for military help by civil authorities are made through the MOD Operations Directorate and will require specific ministerial approval. In extreme situations, where life is at immediate risk, military personnel and resources may be made available without the need for prior ministerial authorisation.

The provision of military assistance is explained in the MOD Joint Doctrine Publication Operations in the UK: the defence contribution to resilience (JDP 02).

Bills and legislation

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA 04) defines how organisations, particularly local responders, prepare for emergencies. In the event of an emergency in which the supply and distribution of the essentials of life to the community are extensively threatened, the CCA may be used to invoke emergency powers on a local, regional or national basis.

Further information

There are a number of published reports that include further detail on how a variety of departments, authorities and agencies work together to deal with an emergency or crisis.

The Cabinet Office has information about the government’s work to prepare for emergencies.

Detailed information for civil authorities on handling crises is contained in the guidance Emergency response and recovery and Emergency preparedness.

See the MOD’s doctrine for UK operations contained in Joint Doctrine Publication Operations in the UK: the defence contribution to resilience (JDP 02).